Tag Archives: pbl

Michael Kaechele

October 4, 2018

This is the fourth post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

Passionate

It’s cliche, but of course most teachers are passionate about their students and their content area. Teachers that I have seen that are most comfortable shifting to a PBL framework are passionate about things outside of the classroom too. They have hobbies that they love or things that they geek out about. It may be music, coding, knitting, martial arts, or blacksmithing.

It really doesn’t matter what they are passionate about. The important thing is that these teachers proudly share their passions with students modeling excitement about learning!

My Obsession

I was a concrete finisher for twenty years before I was a teacher. My students thought that I was obsessed with concrete, and I guess that compared to a “normal” person I am. They would troll me in class by calling it “cement” just to hear my lecture on how that was an inaccurate term. Seriously if we had a new student, they would tell her to ask me a question about cement.  (You can learn the difference between concrete and cement with Clarence in the video above). Once I even wrote a poem about concrete.

But the truth is that I exaggerated my love of concrete for important reasons!

It all started my first year at our PBL school. The district had remodeled part of the Career Tech Center into an amazing space for us. It had these exposed concrete columns (see GIF above) that were beautiful. The exterior ones were left natural, but the interior ones were painted.

One class I started randomly lamenting that the district had painted the columns and that it is NEVER ok to paint concrete! Students thought it was hilarious and kept asking me questions about concrete. They even started tweeting out about it. Of course they were egging me on, down a classic teacher rabbit trail.

At first I kept talking about concrete because students thought it was funny. It became an inside joke for me to go off in great detail on how great concrete is and its scientific properties. The truth is, that I didn’t really care about concrete as much as they thought I did.

But then I realized something deeper was happening and that’s why I never let the topic die, but talked about my concrete obsession even more.

My passion for concrete is weird. I mean really weird. No one cares about what sidewalks are made of. I bet you don’t have a pile of coffee table books on concrete at your house. But by me proudly sharing my weirdness, it gave unofficial permission for students to share their weirdness too.

Students could share about anime, playing the accordion, cosplay, or Dr. Who. My students had unique, weird passions and it became cool to talk about them. Our classroom was a safe place, where everyone could be themselves and be accepted. My public display of affection for concrete created a positive classroom culture.

Project Design

I had a couple of students whose entire lives focused on being woodsman. They would be “off task” in my history class because they were reading college level botany texts and watching YouTube videos on wilderness survival. One of them built a wigwam at his house.

Using PBL, I was able to integrate their passion into our class. I had them focus their research on Native Americans viewpoints throughout history. They loved the Revolution Garden project where we looked at the harmful results of Industrialization.

Teachers can use the PBL framework to engage kids by tying projects to student passions or integrating their passions into projects. Student passions could be a focus for research in a project like my woodsman students. The rest of the class benefits from the deep, passionate research about topics that they would probably never choose themselves.

Student passions could also be used to create a final product. I once had a girl who decorated a cake for her final product. It was full of imagery and symbolism. Students’ talents that are often ignored in school, can shine through projects. Examples of skills that I have seen from students include video shooting and editing, graphic design, coding, public speaking, dance, carpentry, sewing, and anime. I have watched students find a career path through skills that they have discovered and developed through projects.

For a passion project at the end of the year, I taught students how to make concrete candleholders.

The passionate teacher can connect with students in multiple ways. By recognizing students’ passions in project design, teachers can build relationships with students and engage more students in their class and their content. Besides teacher passions show both are humanity and excitement about living.

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

Flex like Stretch Armstrong

 

From https://images.vat19.com/covers/large/the-original-stretch-armstrong.jpg

This is the third post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

Flexible

I remember as a kid that Stretch Armstrong was definitely the ultimate Christmas present. I am pretty sure that at some point I “accidentally” punctured or cut him in someway just to figure what exactly was inside his amazing body. Teaching with the PBL framework can feel like you are getting pulled in many directions at times between student voice and choice, community partners, and your regular teaching demands. Teachers who are more flexible have, dare I say, a less stressful time with PBL and their students benefit from the freedom granted.

Improvisation

The most flexible teacher that I know is my friend, Nate Langel. He is a science teacher who is willing to do anything to get kids excited about learning. Want to do an integrated project, he’s in. He doesn’t worry about timing with his calendar or standards. He knows that he will make it work with the NGSS emphasis on practice and application. Want to partner on a project about poverty, the problems of industrialization, or water? Nate is leading the charge!

What we can learn from Nate’s approach is that he often starts with a great project concept, not the standards. Then he looks through his content and finds the standards to match. This allows him to be flexible to all kinds of project ideas that at first glance, might not “look” like they fit his class.

The other thing that Nate does well is that his students do not perform canned labs but design their own experiments around a problem or theme of the PBL project. He encourages students to research and come up with crazy hypotheses that students can test. “Normal” in his classroom is to see every group of students working on a totally different experiment towards a common group of standards. Kids love the opportunity to be creative and ask their own questions.

Road Tripping

Maybe you are not ready to be this flexible yet. How about starting like another colleague of mine? His students were creating PSA’s around the topic of invasive species. A group of girls approached him about a local problem. The airport was using a de-icing agent on their runways that was ending up in the nearby stream and polluting it. They wanted to research the effects. He let this group do a separate project while still meeting the content standards. You might guess that this group was more invested in the project than the rest of the class and did the highest quality work.

When you run a student-centered classroom with voice and choice, then you have to be flexible to where students decide to take the projects. It’s more of a road trip to your learning goals than using GPS. Of course, Google Maps can take you anywhere by the fastest route and help you avoid construction, accidents, and tolls. But sometimes the “obstacles” are where the greatest learning takes place.

Starting a PBL road trip means that you know the destination of standards and enduring understandings that your class is headed for, but let students choose the route and where to stop to take selfies along the way. Students learn how to manage the project and themselves, and are more motivated along the way.

Killing a Project

Sometimes projects go off the rails. There are always unforeseen difficulties that arise with school events, student groups, and the logistics of working with your community partners. Acts of God can throw a monkey wrench in. We once had to cancel our field trip to local factories to launch a school wide project because of a snow day. Then the community partner cancelled an appearance the following day because of the storms. PBL teachers have to be willing to improvise when things don’t go as expected because I can guarantee that challenges will come.

One year my students made Choose your own Adventure videos about World War I and World War II. This was a whole class assignment of 50 students working together to research, storyboard, write a script, make props, act, film, and edit the final product.

Things went south in so many ways. I did not create enough structure for the students to organize and complete the project (yes, teachers can be too flexible). There were miscommunications; students forgot costumes at home on filming day; everything took longer than expected; filmed scenes were lost as we had no system to get the files easily from the cameras to computers for editing. 

After a few weeks, one class had very few final videos completed and the other class had a hodge podge of scenes done. Neither class was anywhere near a final product and would probably need weeks to finish. My teaching partner and I made the decision to kill the project. Sometimes it is necessary to discard a project that isn’t working. We reflected on the obstacles with our students and were able to improve our processes for future projects the rest of the year.

Teaching with a PBL framework is going to bring some unsuspected challenges. Being flexible ensures that you honor your student’s voice and choice and may also help you to keep your sanity!

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

Student-Centered Teaching

This is the second post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

Why do we teach? A basic question, but how you answer may reveal your philosophy. I would argue that no one’s content is so valuable that kids are going to suffer in life if they miss it. The core of what we do isn’t curriculum, standards, or academic growth. Nope, it’s the kids. So making them the center of your class makes sense. Let’s look at some examples of what that might look like.

Space

The first time I enter a classroom, I observe the space and make some assumptions. Are the desks in rows facing a screen or are there chairs in groups facing each other? Does the teacher’s desk and “personal area” take up a huge chunk of the room? Do the walls have student work showing creativity or does it look like a Pinterest page vomited on them? Are there past projects, supplies, or “junk” laying around demonstating that students make things or does the room feel sterile?

All of these things are evidence of whether the adult teaching or students working is the center of the teacher’s philosophy. Room design communicates to students the culture and values of the teacher from desk alignment, to alternative seating choices to light and decorations. Is it about efficiency and beauty or conversations and inquiry? Student-centered teachers exhibit kid’s work as the theme of their space.

Active

Teachers who have already experimented with projects of any kind, even if they may be dessert projects, are taking the first steps toward PBL. If you have kids making, kids working in groups, or kids presenting in any fashion then you are taking baby steps toward a student-centered philosophy. If you have ever run a simulation, used skits or drama, or run a genius hour then you are more likely to shift to PBL easier.

Teachers with an active classroom of students moving out of their seats and working in groups are more comfortable with PBL. They understand that silence often implies consent to teacher control and that productive noise is evidence of learning. They understand the energy generated from a healthy buzz of working kids.

Why Over What

For years I taught U.S. history, making sure we “covered” all of the standards by the state. But in my mind, the standards and yes, even the project students were doing was not the end all, be all. I had my own set of goals for all of the students in the class. It was my “why,” my enduring understanding.

For me there were 3 things that I wanted every student to learn and U.S. History was the vehicle that I taught threw: 

  1. BS detection
  2. Multiple viewpoints
  3. Empathy

BS detection is important so that my students are critical thinkers. I don’t want them fooled by “fake news” from any political viewpoint. The multiple viewpoints of historical events lead to my final goal of empathy. I want my students to understand others’ views so that they can step out of their own biases and care for others.

Student-centered means teachers are more concerned about the enduring understandings of their content discipline than about any specific standards. It is about developing successful humans, not making sure that students know all of the curriculum.

Culture is Everything

I believe everything that we do and don’t do in the classroom creates our culture. Every word, activity, conversation said or omitted tells students what is valued. The layout of the room mentioned above, greeting students at the door by name, and developing relationships all show students that they are valued.

My mantra for students is a culture of “Trust, Respect, Responsibility, Effort.” At the beginning of the year, in a stern voice with no smile I tell students, “If you have to go to the bathroom or get a drink, don’t ever ask me.” I pause for effect, secretly enjoying the concerned looks on their faces. Then I continue with a smile, “Just go.” I tell them that they don’t have to earn trust in my room but that trust is assumed until broken. I talk to my students as adults, not talking down to them.

Student voice and choice is a key component of PBL and many teachers are comfortable giving students choices over content, products, or assessment methods. But student VOICE won’t happen without a strong culture.

One year early in our Civil Rights project,  a conversation about discrimination turned into an open mic of students sharing stories of when they were treated unfairly. It wasn’t in my lesson plans for that day, but it was one of the most powerful feelings of community in the classroom that I have ever been a part of!

Sally raised her hand and shared that she was gay. She shared the pain of being rejected from her church youth group and her previous school. The culture in our class was strong so that she felt safe to come out in front of everyone. Sally continued to use her voice to stand up for LGBTQ rights. Student-centered isn’t satisfied with student choice, it promotes student voice and amplifies it.

Being student-centered is the most important trait of a PBL teacher. This teacher doesn’t “own” the space, but designs it for group work and shows off high quality work. Their class is active with the healthy buzz of kids working on projects. PBL teachers know their why of putting kids first is more important than their what of content. They work hard to establish a healthy culture of caring and respect where kids know that they are valued and safe.

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

“I want students to own their own learning”

via GIPHY

What do educators even mean when they say, “I want students to own their learning” in our school? Think about the context of that statement for a moment. In our highly standardized curriculum and over-tested classroom environments, this statement is an admission of guilt. Students are predominantly consuming “our learning,” being force-fed to them whether they like it or not.

Scenario 1

Imagine telling a child on her birthday that it is her special day and that she can have a party with a special meal, games, and gifts. Then imagine planning the party based solely on healthy food, a low budget, and what is convenient for you, ignoring any of the many attributes that make her a unique and special child. So a meal is planned, making sure to include the proper daily amount of fruit and vegetables and avoiding salty and sweet foods. Children are invited that she does not really know well or play with. Activities and decorations are based on themes that she has no interest in at all. Gifts are chosen by asking a stranger working in the store what a 6 year old likes. In all aspects, the cheapest option is chosen.

No parent would ever do that!

Scenario 2

Instead they would start with a birthday theme around her interests: mermaids, princesses, or unicorns. They would make her favorite foods, balancing nutrition with her tastes.  Her friends would come with personalized gifts that reflect her passions and hobbies. Maybe her parents would even plan a trip around something she loves because it is HER day, and HER party.

Reality in School

But isn’t the first option what school is like? Children need to learn required curriculum with a “balanced” intake of reading, writing, and math. Every student has to learn the same things, at the same time, sorted by age groups. They work with assigned groups on the same activities regardless of their personal interests or backgrounds. There is very little opportunity, in most schools, for students to “own” anything. It all comes in a one size fits all package from the district.

The same analogy about choice can be made for buying a house, a new car, or even clothes. When people “own” something they make choices, customize it to make theirs, and personalize it.

Voice and Choice

So if we want students to “own their own learning,” districts, administrators, and teachers need to give up some control and turn to student “voice and choice.” We don’t need to get students to “buy in” to something that they are not interested in (notice that this financial jargon implies that schools are “selling” something that students don’t want).

The first year of our wall to wall PBL school, the biology teacher did a project where students had to make a video on invasive species. A group of students approached him with a different idea. They had heard about a de-icing agent being used at our local airport which was ending up in the local stream. He let those students pursue this project instead of the video. The students went to the stream and did testing to prove the effects. They ended up getting more out of this project than any other group because they were allowed to explore their passions in biology.

Humans are naturally curious explorers of their world, and all children have things that they are passionate about. If we ever want students to “own school”, we have to give them the power to control some aspects of it and pursue their interests. Students will never own the learning unless we let them make it theirs.

 

5 Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher

This is the first post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

The past few years I have worked with many teachers introducing the components of Project-Based Learning (PBL) and helping them design their own projects. Sometimes it has been a teacher’s first attempt at PBL and other times it has been more of a fine tuning of something that they already do in their classroom. I see some teachers jump right in the deep end with complex, Gold Standard projects that they design themselves and others start more slowly with simpler projects.

This post is by no means a judgement of the teachers who start PBL more gradually. Everyone needs to take their own pace with the switch to PBL so that they are comfortable and find success. (Note: Check out this great post on seeing PBL as a Dimmer Switch for more on “gradually releasing” to PBL).

If it’s not sustainable, what’s the point?

In working with the dive-right-in teacher type, here are 5 things that I have observed. Note, these traits are just predictors of an easier transition to teaching through project-based learning. Obviously there are exceptions, and other characteristics may be more or less useful depending on the specific context and application.

1. Student-centered

The most important shift toward PBL is about giving up total teacher control of the classroom. We don’t want students to “drown” from a lack of structure, but to thrive as they take ownership of their learning.  My shortest summary of  PBL is: “Less of us (teachers), more of them (students).” Teachers who are willing to give students more freedom, voice, and choice in their classrooms find PBL a natural fit.

Classrooms may be a bit chaordic (ordered chaos) at times, but student-centered teachers realize that silence and order often indicates compliance rather than engagement and learning. Student-centered classrooms focus on a culture of caring and relationships over rules, standards, and curriculum. These teachers focus on the “why” over the “what.” They are more focused on enduring understandings of their curriculum and success skills, than on individual standards without context.

2. Flexible

PBL does not fit in a box. When students are driving the learning through inquiry, the “lesson plan” often takes detours down interesting paths. The logistics of a project usually have unforeseen difficulties: a community partner cancels their guest speaking engagement, student filming and editing take longer than expected, or technology falls through.

Student groups always have challenges because they are kids who are learning to communicate and work together. Flexible teachers are adaptable to whatever gets thrown at them. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t stressed at times (especially the day of a showcase!) but that they are comfortable improvising when necessary. Flexible teachers are not afraid of things being messy at times.

3. Passionate

Is a teacher curious about learning outside of her content area? Is she a creative makers in her free time? Does she geek out about her hobbies in front of the class? The edujargon here would be that she is a lifelong learner. Passion is contagious!

Passionate teachers connect with students by sharing their own interests and hobbies and make the classroom emotionally safe for students to do the same. This leads to the teacher designing projects where students design solutions according to their strengths and connected to their interests. Passionate teachers also enjoy designing curriculum, not just teaching from a book or pacing guide because one of their passions is the subject that they teach. They are always reflecting on how to make their content fun and accessible to their students.

4. Self efficacious

Most teachers are willing to go above and beyond stated duties, but this is more about taking on something outside of your curriculum. It may be a school club or coaching. It may be leading the production of a play. It may be a personal project totally outside of school.

Teachers with strong self efficacy are comfortable managing the “messy middle” of PBL and don’t need a curriculum guide to tell them what to teach next.  Note: this is not about being a super hero and killing yourself. These teachers say “no” to things like committees, grading homework, and voluntary meetings. Instead self efficacious teachers prioritize their time to specific things related to the project that they care about.

5. Collaborative

Truly authentic projects usually involve an integration of content. Collaborative teachers are willing to work with others outside of their subject area to address engaging cross-curricular problems. PBL also requires collaboration with community partners so teachers need to be comfortable reaching out to experts in fields that they may know little about.

Collaborative teachers aren’t afraid of a lack of knowledge or skill about something related to the project because they can reach out to experts and learn alongside their students. They are also modeling for students how to successfully work in groups building on everyone’e strengths. Some of the best collaborative teachers that I know have even collaborated with their students outside of school.

One of the great things about this list is that these are not inherent characteristics that we are born with or without. They are traits and attitudes that we can grow in if we make a conscious choice! What are your strongest PBL teaching traits? What would you add to this list?

Want to learn more about the ideal traits of a PBL teacher? Check out this series where I explore each trait in more detail:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

Hat tip to Teresa, Chris, Anthony, Dave, Justin, Matt,  JoAn, Randi, Kiffany, and Drew for contributing to my thinking on this post.